Is Rejection Good for the Writer’s Soul?

snoopy

The first story I ever sold was the second-ever story that I sent out to market. I submitted to an anthology invite, was asked for a minor rewrite of the ending (which improved the story), and the editors bought the story–a SFWA qualifying pro sale, in fact.

I had one other story on the market at the time–the first thing I’d ever sent out–and had 8 rejections slips in-hand by the time I made that first sale. I’ve still never sold that first story, having amassed 17 rejections before retiring it from circulation. But I still like it.

I don’t write any of this to brag, but rather in response to a couple of articles I’ve read online in recent days, speaking in defense (and, dare I say ‘praise’?) of rejection.

The first article by Monica Byrne—which I don’t actually take issue with—is her “anti-resume”, an analysis of six-years’ worth of submissions, finding a 3% acceptance rate, which is pretty standard (I’d always heard 2%, so she may actually be ahead of the curve). She submitted to literary journals and magazines, as well as venues more familiar to SF readers (places like Clarkesworld, F&SF, etc,) She has a pretty reasonable view of rejection in the life of a writer, too:

…my anti-resumé reminds me that rejection will always be a part of my career, as in any career, as in anything worth doing. And there are no successful artists I know for whom this isn’t also the case. They love their work. That love buoys them through inevitable and even overwhelming rejection. So I promised myself that, no matter how “The Girl in the Road” was received, I’d start the next book right away. Now I’m 20,000 words in and reminded that just the daily practice of sitting and writing is still the best part. And, like I found that no amount of failure would change that, I hope that no amount of success will, either.

Okay, so no real issue there for me. I went into writing with my eyes open, and I knew there would be a lot of rejection along the way.

Over on English Kills Review, however, Melissa Duclos wrote an article ‘In Defense of Rejection’ in which she cites Monica Byrne as an example of how “Artists need rejection.” Hang on–this is where it gets good:

Every time a writer hears “no”—from a graduate school or a literary journal, an agent or a publisher—she has another opportunity to say “yes.” Does she really want to keep doing this with her life? Yes. Does she really have something interesting to say, that people need to read? Yes. This is not just a matter of endurance, though of course that is part of it.

She makes a number of sweeping generalizations, such as that the rise of self-publishing and the option to skip rejection from editors and publishers all together are “bad news for novels and for writing in general, and even worse for writers.” And again, she says that “Rejection, as maddening as it can be for writers, serves a purpose. Without it, the overall quality of novels on the market has suffered.”

Nowhere in her article, of course, does she substantiate or give any concrete examples to support these claims, nor could she. Taste in literature is completely subjective, after all.

She continues:

A writer who faces rejection—years and years of rejection—will eventually be forced to change, to develop her understanding of form, or her voice, or her handling of characters. She will have to grow in order to break through.

Horseshit.

Don’t misunderstand: I’ve had plenty of rejection. After a spate of quick sales early on, I went two long, cold years with nothing but rejection slips…only to make two pro-level sales within days of one another to break the streak. My most rejected story was rejected 21 times, but then published in a major magazine market and I was immediately contacted out of the blue by an editor requesting a reprint. Did that story suck 21 times, only to be suddenly awesome the 22nd time even though I’d made no changes? Had I somehow forgotten how to write fiction for two years?

Of course not.

Rejection is simply a sign you haven’t appealed to a specific editor’s taste, or they don’t feel like they can sell your work to their publishing board or to their readership. And that’s what this is about–taste making and economics.

Which is A) why you shouldn’t take rejection too seriously/hard, and B) why it’s preposterous to claim that rejection is somehow good or necessary for a writer or their development as an artist. It’s just English Lit Department romanticism about the “tortured artist” that perpetuates this myth.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You don’t need rejection. It’s something you ignore and then carry on writing.[/pullquote]

When Duclos asks whether writers will “choose to be artists striving to make a living, or salespeople, in the business of peddling words?” her misunderstanding of publishing is clear, as is where her sympathies lie: with the romanticized idea of the ‘starving artist.’ This means she’s missed one of the first (and key) points that Byrne made in her article: a desire to make a living from her art.

Artistic idealism is great, but fails to sustain the necessities of life unless coupled with a pay cheque from somewhere. Shakespeare knew this. So did Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. They created great art…which they knew would sell.

You often hear editors say a story or novel wasn’t right for them but then it sells elsewhere. Was there a flaw in the story, or did it just not suit the market? Those are different things. To suggest that rejection will teach something… Will it teach a general lesson, or will it just teach you how best to suit your writing to a specific market. This is the post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with trying to write to suit a specific market. I’d like to be published in ASIMOV’S and am working on stories that I think might appeal to Shelia Williams, and by extension her readership. To date, I’ve had some very nice, encouraging rejections from Shelia. But if she rejects my stories does that mean they won’t sell anywhere? That they’re worthless? That I’m worthless?

Of course not. She rejected that story that was rejected 21 times, and it still sold and sold well when it eventually went.

Besides, how much can you really learn from generic rejection slips? Even personalized rejections rarely have more than a cursory explanation, usually of the “it didn’t work for me”, “didn’t fit my needs”, etc. if an editor takes real time to tell you what needs fixing they are usually offering to buy it (or at least take another look at it) if you make that change.

I keep reminding myself of advice I’ve heard from people like Robert J. Sawyer, Nancy Kress, David Farland, and Kevin J. Anderson: persistence pays off. If you stick with this writing thing, if you love and keep at it, after most others have given up and fallen by the wayside you’ll find success.

It’s said that if you get shit on by a bird it’s good luck. I’m pretty sure that’s just something that people who get shit on by birds tell themselves to make themselves feel better. Saying “rejection is good for you” is nothing different. It’s rejection as the hair shirt of literary practice: a self-mortification.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Saying “rejection is good for you” is nothing different. It’s rejection as the hair shirt of literary practice: a self-mortification.[/pullquote]

I always believed that rejection was unavoidable and necessary…but now I don’t know. The rise of self-publishing has meant that even if no editor feels a story works in their magazine or on their website, an author can release it to the world and see what the real arbiter of taste—the reading public—thinks. Look at (admittedly outlier successes) like The Martian, a book that no traditional publisher would publish for a host of reasons. I read it—it was a lot of fun, and a huge success book in print and on film.

Is there also a lot of self-published crap? Yes, of course. 90% of everything is crap, including from traditional publishing venues.

All this smacks to me of snobbery, the defense of some kind of platonic ideal of what it means to write and receive rejection and praise. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Mark Twain all wrote for money and for popular audiences. Those who wrote for some kind of elite audience are forgotten or remembered only in academic circles, where someone needs to find a thesis topic.

Forgotten authors make for good ones.

– S.

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Cover Reveal!: CAPED Now Available for Pre-Order

Look! Up on the bookshelf! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…the cover for Caped, the new anthology of superhero fiction in which my story “Super Frenemies” appears!

In what is surely the fastest acceptance-to-finished-book turnaround I’ve experienced in publishing, the book is not only available NOW for pre-order, but will be released in print and ebook format on Tuesday, Nov. 24th. You can find the ebook through your preferred vendor, and the print book will be available via Amazon.

The only regret I have about the project is that they didn’t want an author photo. I had the perfect one ready to go…

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Superhero…

– S.

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UFO Detection and Tracking

From the ‘long-shot’ file this morning…

A volunteer group of scientists and academics from around the world (about 15 scientists, engineers, astronomers, professors, and a journalist) has launched a new effort called UFODATA (for ‘UFO Detection and Tracking’), to apply rigorous scientific research and methods to the study of UFOs–an area of study that has been confined to the margins (at best) of the traditional scientific community.

They plan to install a series of automated surveillance stations loaded with scientific research tools at various locations in known UFO hotspots such as those in the western United States and in Hessdalen, Norway. The sensors that the group hopes to build will include several high-resolution spectrographic cameras, a magnetometer, a Geiger counter, and a weather station. Each one will cost between $10,000 and $20,000, the group says, which they’re hoping to raise through crowdfunding and other donations.

The group says more reliable and scientific data will not only advance understanding of UFOs, but might also serve to persuade the public at large that this issue merits more serious examination.

While its a noble endeavour, one wonders whether its doomed to failure. Even if there ARE alien craft visiting the planet (which is a big ‘if’), if you can overcome the vast hurdles to meaningful interstellar travel, would you not have devised a way to avoid detection by the indigenous fauna? I mean, human science has apparently already cracked the invisibility cloak–surely some alien has come up with a cloaking device, right?

– S.

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Fukushima and the World Without Us

Polish photographer Arkadiusz Podniesinski–whose made a career of photographing abandoned and forgotten places–travelled to the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in September and has released a selection of images he captured within the 20km (12.5 mile) Exclusion Zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

They are, to say the least, breath-taking. They are like a photo essay from the end of the world.

The images reminded me of the book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman: a non-fiction thought-experiment about what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared. Weisman details how our cities and houses would deteriorate (they’ll be forests within 500 years), how long man-made artifacts would last (hint: a really long time), and how remaining lifeforms would evolve without us around.

Weisman concludes that radioactive waste (along with bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore) would be among the longest-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth. Indeed, without human monitoring and intervention within weeks the world’s nuclear plants (over four hundred of them) would all melt down, while our petrochemical plants would erupt in flame, spewing poisonous clouds for decades to come. All the while, the world would slowly become wilderness again, with carbon dioxide levels returning to prehuman levels after the geological eyeblink of a mere 100,000 years.

If we could send back photos from the World Without Us, well, I rather suspect they’d look a lot like the photos from Fukushima.

– S.

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Who You Gonna Call?: Ghost Hunting In Norway

“We’re ready to believe YOU!”

In honour of Halloween (and since my family and I are going as the Ghostbusters this year) a quirky story from The Grey Lady herself: Norway has a ghost problem.

The article from last Sunday’s paper recounts the story of Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff, a travel agency manager, who apparently had a spook stuck in her office. Accorrding to the Times:

…when “weird things” — inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises and complaints from staff members of constant headaches — started happening at the ground-floor travel office, she slowly began to put aside her deep skepticism about life beyond the here and now. After computer experts, electricians and a plumber all failed to find the cause of her office’s troubles, she finally got help from a clairvoyant who claimed powers to communicate with the dead. The headaches and other problems all vanished.

“I’m usually very psychic–I’m worried something terrible is going to happen to you.”

While attendance at traditional churches in Norway has dropped off precipitously in recent decades, according to opinion polls belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging in that country.

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

Check out the full article–really interesting stuff (including the ghost of the dead Nazi who keeps messing with the tourism brochures…)

Happy Halloween!

– S.

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Cassini Probe Looks for Life on Enceladus Today

At some point today (Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015), NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will take the deepest dive ever through the ejecta plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And this is particularly exciting for me, since while I find space exploration fascinating generally, I keep special tabs on my old friend Cassini.

We go WAY back.

Scientists hope this close flyby–approaching to within 30 miles of Enceladus’ surface at a blistering 19,000 mph (yeah–you read that right) will shed light on what’s happening beneath the moon’s icy surface. The belief is that Enceladus has a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and learning more about the contents of the plumes venting from that ocean will tell us a great deal about the possibilities of life hidden beneath the ice.

While Cassini wasn’t designed to look for life–its a planetary survey craft, after all–it does have a suite of instruments that can be re-purposed. Passing through the plumes (which eject into space through great fissures in the ice that NASA scientists refer to as ‘tiger stripes’) it will be able to sense what that frozen water contains. Research already indicates that Enceladus has salts, organic molecules like methane, CO2, and ammonia. If it can find molecular hydrogen–a tell-tale sign of hyrdrothermal activity beneath the ocean–then Enceladus will have all the requirements for the development of life as we know and understand it.

Good luck, Cassini! I’ll be watching…

– S.

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Evidence of Second Viking Outpost Found in Canada

In the 1960s two Norwegian archaeologists discovered a Viking base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. They dated the site to between 989 and 1020 AD, confirming the oldest known European contact with the New World (suck it, Columbus).

Now, archaeologists have confirmed a second Viking site in the Tanfield Valley on the southeast coast of Baffin Island. They’ve found pelt fragments from Old World rats; a whalebone shovel similar to those used by Viking settlers in Greenland to cut sod; large stones that appear to have been cut and shaped by someone familiar with European stone masonry; Viking yarn; and whetstones showing traces of copper alloys such as bronze—materials known to have been made by Viking smiths but unknown among the Arctic’s native inhabitants.

Full details here.

I’ve always loved anything Viking-related, so in my mind the only thing cooler than this would be if the archaeologists had discovered these guys

– S.

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Finding Yourself by Losing Yourself in Fiction

I’ve mentioned before how I sometime sit in the dark, drinking whiskey, wondering whether this whole “fiction thing” has any redeeming social value.

Well, looks like I have even MORE reason to be hopeful that fiction–the lie that tells the truth–can actually make positive change in people’s lives.

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own–a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

One of the researchers said experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to understand what another person is going though in a particular situation, but without losing sight of their own identity.

“Experience-taking is much more immersive–you’ve replaced yourself with the other,” she said.

The key is that experience-taking is spontaneous – you don’t have to direct people to do it, but it happens naturally under the right circumstance.

– S.

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Scientists Discover Massive Alien Artifact* In Deep Space

* or just a cloud of comets, or stellar debris, or…

Okay, that title was clickbait–but this is still a cool story!

KIC 8462852, a distant star situated 1,480 light-years away between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, has been observed with a very unusual flickering pattern. Something makes the star dim drastically every few years in periods lasting between 5 and 80 days–a pattern that doesn’t show up anywhere else across the 150,000 stars we’ve studied in depth.

And scientists aren’t sure what’s going on.

Now, it’s likely that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation: maybe catastrophic crashes in the asteroid belt; maybe a giant collision in the planetary system like the one that created our own moon; maybe small proto-planets shrouded in a cloud of dust. The most probable explanation is that a family of comets orbiting KIC 8462852 had been disturbed by the passage of another nearby star, which sent chunks of ice and rock flying inward, explaining both the dips in brightness and their irregularity.

However…there is also another theory.

Scientists (at least those of a certain bent) have theorized that an advanced alien civilization would be marked by its ability to harness all the available energy from its star, rather than being limited to a single planet’s resources. They envision megastructures like a Dyson Sphere that would orbit or even encompass a star, capturing all available power and putting it to use.

Unlike the Dyson sphere that once appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, such a construct would probably comprise a chain of smaller satellites or space habitats, something that would block its star’s light as weirdly and irregularly as the light of KIC 8462852 has been blocked.

There probably aren’t words to describe how badly I want this to turn out to be a Dyson sphere, or a ringworld, or, well, just about any mega-structure built by an advanced alien civilization. Hey–I’ve been reading David Brin’s Uplift books recently. Maybe its the Progenitors?

Then again, maybe its nothing.

– S.

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Foresight and the Doomsday Seed Vault

I’ve posted before about the the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: the so-called “doomsday” seed vault tunneled deep into the permafrost of the Norwegian Arctic, but I’d honestly hoped I’d never have to post about a need to use it. After all, it’s stated purpose is to store seeds of key agricultural crops from around the globe so that in the event such crops are lost due to a man-made or natural apocalypse staples like rice, wheat, lentils, etc. can be reestablished. So, in order to use it, something really bad has to happen first.

And then the war in Syria happened…and kept happening. And it was the ongoing devastation in Syria that prompted the first-ever withdrawal from the doomsday seed bank.

In secret shipments last month, about 38,000 seed samples including wheat, barley, lentil and chickpea–strains that had been specifically bred for cultivation in arid parts of the world–were sent from Norway to research stations in Morocco and Lebanon operated by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA. The centre is located in Aleppo but is no longer able to make full use of its facilities due to the war in Syria.

Nearly two-thirds of the specimens withdrawn last month are unique varieties of ancient crops from across the Middle East and Africa. They will be used by ICARDA to fulfill requests for crop diversity from breeders, researchers and farmers around the world, so they can develop and test new strains to cope with a changing climate and new diseases. The varieties delivered to the Morocco gene bank will be sown in the coming season, with some seeds collected and returned to the vaults at Svalbard for safe-keeping.

The costs of the war in Syria (and spilling out into surrounding regions) has been incalculable, first (of course) in human life, but also in the loss of civil society, infrastructure, and even the common heritage of all mankind in the destruction by ISIS of antiquities like those in Mosul, the and historical sites like Palmyra. It would have been all too easy for this contribution to the world’s crop biodiversity to be lost, too, to barbarism and ignorance.

But in this one respect, at least, there is some glimmer of hope that this precious heritage–the legacy of generation of farmers and botanists–has be saved through an act of selfless foresight on the part of we human beings, and that it will be preserved alongside so many others for the benefit of future generations. It is the kind of grand foresight human beings are often possessed of, sadly, only in fiction.

And that, I suppose, gives me hope.

– S.

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October 19, 2015 · 1:00 pm